A few days into his post as acting president of the new national entity for Jewish communal activity, Stephen Solender apologizes to a visitor for not knowing his way around the organization’s headquarters in the block-long old Port Authority Building on Eighth Avenue in Chelsea. His large office has no artwork on the walls and the bookshelves are bare. In conversation, he even stumbles a couple of times over the organization’s new name, the United Jewish Communities.But Solender, who acknowledges that “there will be bumps in the road,” expresses confidence that the new organization — a successor to the United Jewish Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Israel Appeal — will be a major success. He says the new entity was created “out of strength, not weakness,” and has the capability to “reorganize and reinvent” the American Jewish federation system.
That system, he points out, raises more than $700 million a year, supports a Jewish Agency that has brought almost a million Jews to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the last decade, and continues to rescue Jews in need, most recently those in the Balkans. “Our system is the envy of every ethnic and religious charity in this country,” he says, noting that “we Jews tend to see the glass as half-empty.”
Indeed, many critics see the new merger as an extreme attempt to revive a proud but declining federation system whose fund-raising abilities have not kept up with American Jewry’s increasing wealth, at a time when assimilation is on the rise.But Solender, who insists “I’m no Pollyanna,” says he’s heard this kind of talk before. He arrived in New York in 1986 to oversee the merger of the local UJA and Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, and heard the naysayers assert that the effort would fail.
“They said the agencies and major stakeholders would walk away,” he recalls, “that the organization would be too big and unmanageable, that the job was too big for one exec and that the merger wouldn’t last. But 13 years later such talk is ancient history.”He believes that now, too, despite the skeptics, the national merger will prosper, and says his toughest challenge will be “trying to divide my time and do justice to both jobs.”
Long known as a workaholic, Solender, 61, will spend the next six months doing what he admits should be two full-time jobs. He’ll devote two-thirds of his time as acting president of the United Jewish Communities and one-third to his ongoing post as executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York. He says he is committed to returning full-time to the local job after six months, and that the leadership of the new national entity has assured him they will hire a president by Labor Day.
Though he supported the candidacy of another federation exec — apparently Steven Nassiter of Chicago — Solender says that when those and subsequent talks broke down and the leadership approached him to take the position on an interim basis, he felt compelled to accept. “There comes a time when you have to walk the walk,” he explains. He had long favored the merger, he says, but as months went by with no professional leadership in place, “I was very worried that the dream could slip away.”
He believes that the post should go to someone within the Jewish federation system, rather than an outsider, for at least the next five or six years “because this is a big, complicated job and the learning curve is too steep” for someone unfamiliar with the system.Solender knows there are key elements of the community that feel alienated by the governance structure of the new entity and he hopes to pacify them. He says that he and the two top lay leaders of the group, Charles Bronfman and Joel Tauber, hope to meet with Zionist leaders who fear that Israel will be less of a priority under the new system. On the contrary, Solender says, “we feel we have greater potential to help Israel.” In the old federation structure, he says, “we were in a deteriorating situation, with more federations giving lower percentages of their funds to Israel.” The focus now will be on specific projects rather than set allocations.
Solender also plans to meet with leaders of the religious movements and ask them for names of qualified people for committees. “We want to work closely with rabbis and synagogues as our partners,” he says, adding: “We have a responsibility to more efficiently involve the movements.”He may encounter an uphill battle on both fronts because communities seem less committed to funds for Israel, and the leaders of the religious movements — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — are united in their feelings of disenfranchisement from the new system to date.
Fully aware that critics will be watching the new organization’s every move, Solender says he hopes to see some quick successes in the areas of fund raising, Jewish Renaissance, overseas programs and cost-efficiency.Staffers of the new agency are concerned about job security and about how policies will be implemented under the new system. “There is a normal resistance to change, and inevitable anxieties,” he says, noting that personnel decisions will be made “with sensitivity.”
A veteran of 38 years in Jewish communal life, Solender is focusing primarily now on rescuing Jews from the Balkans, and bolstering morale among lay and professional leaders. “It’s tough to be a cheerleader and a problem solver at the same time,” he notes, but that’s what he’s trying to do, and asks only that observers “watch our progress but don’t over-react. We’ll make mistakes, but change is not an even, uphill path, and there’s no progress without risks.”